Division-III Football Playoffs: Wittenberg University vs. Washington & Jefferson College
Match-up: On Saturday at noon Eastern Time the Washington & Jefferson College Presidents (Presidents’ Athletic Conference, 9-1, 7-1) travel to Springfield, OH to take on the Wittenberg Tigers (North Coast Athletic Conference, 9-1, 9-0) in the first round of the Division-III football playoffs. Both teams are ranked in the latest D3Football poll, with Wittenberg coming in at No. 12 and Washington & Jefferson at No. 19. The Presidents had won their first nine games before dropping their final game of the season to Waynesburg. Conversely, Wittenberg lost their first game of the season before winning the final nine.
Coaches: Joe Fincham has been the coach for the Wittenberg Tigers since 1996, and has posted a very impressive 173-37 record, an incredible 82.4 percent winning percentage, which ranks him in the top-25 all-time for best winning percentages at any college football level. This is the 11th time that he has led his team to the NCAA playoffs. His team has advanced to the quarterfinals three times.
This is Mike Sirianni’s 12th season as the head coach at Washington & Jefferson College. Coach Sirianni’s career record is 110-25, an 81.5 winning percentage. He does not qualify yet, but at this rate the Presidents’ coach will soon be on that top-25 list himself. This is ninth time leading his team to the playoffs, and twice he has advanced to the quarterfinals.
The Washington & Jefferson Presidents have one of most potent offenses in Division-III. They don’t just have a duel threat offense. They have arguably the most deadly combination in Division-III in quarterback Pete Coughlin and running back Ryan Ruffing. The scariest part is that Ruffing is a junior and Coughlin just a sophomore.
Ruffing is fourth in the country with 1505 yards rushing and he is second with 24 touchdowns. At 6-1, 215, he has speed and can take a pounding and just keep on going. He has carried the ball 293 times this year and has a 5.1 yards per carry average.
Coughlin is just ridiculously accurate. He has completed 69.4 percent of his passes season. Coughlin is also a dangerous threat on the ground, rushing for 257 yards on 103 carries and a score.
The Presidents have three players that caught at least 49 balls, making them incredibly difficult to defend. Daniel Lis made 65 catches for 766 yards and 7 touchdowns. He is followed by Max Creighton, who caught 60 passes for 668 yards and 6 scores. The deep threat of the team is Jesse Zubik, who tied for the team lead in yards receiving with 766 yards, but did in with only 49 catches. He led the team with 9 touchdowns and a 15.6 yards per catch average, and did it in only 9 games.
The defense is led by senior linebacker Jared Pratt, who made 103 tackles, had 3 interceptions, a sack and 2 forced fumbles. Safety Bryce Merrill plays more like a linebacker, but he has the speed and instincts to be a dominant safety. This ball hawk has 78 tackles and 9 sacks from the safety position, with an interception and 4 pass breakups. DE John Turner leads the team in sacks with 11.
Collectively the Presidents have recorded 27 sacks, 13 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles.
Quarterback Zach Jenkins is the leader of the Wittenberg Tigers offense. The junior has thrown for 2499 yards and 23 touchdowns this season, with just 4 interceptions in 292 attempts. He has an impressive completion percentage of 62.3 percent, and also has gained 327 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground. He knows how to use his speed to buy time to throw, and when the opportunity is there he will run.
Sean Gary is the team’s primary running back, rushing for 549 yards and 5 touchdowns. Gary is a grinder, but he also does not have great speed or an offensive line built to run block. His per carry average of 3.3 is the lowest of any primary back in the playoffs.
Four players caught at least 10 passes this season, but Jenkins’ primary target is junior Zach Culvahouse. The junior caught 71 balls for 1010 yards and 11 touchdowns. Corey Clump made 40 catches for 564 yards and 4 touchdowns.
What makes the Tigers defense so dangerous is that they get plays from everyone. Seven different players made at least two sacks, four had at least two interceptions and five had at least 50 tackles. If a team focuses on one or two defenders they are sure to get burned by somebody else.
Senior Evan Killilea is the team’s leading tackler with 85, plus he had 2.5 sacks, 2 interceptions and a fumble recovery. Killilea is a real leader who can do it all, and it shows in his play on the field. Sophomore linebacker Dustin Holmes has recorded 74 tackles, and he also has 2.5 sacks and 2 interceptions with 2 forced fumbles.
Overall the Tigers have sacked the quarterback 24 times, made 14 interceptions and forced 16 fumbles.
Washington & Jefferson: 548.26 yards per game. 45.7 points per game
Wittenberg: 390.2 yards per game, 38.2 points per game
Washington & Jefferson: 324.1 yards per game, 19.8 points allowed per game
Wittenberg: 287.3 yards per game, 12.8 points allowed per game
Outlook: This is a game that pits two teams with fairly evenly matched defenses and quarterbacks. Both play exceptional defense, get to the quarterback and create turnovers. The difference between the two is that the Washington & Jefferson College Presidents have a far superior running game, and since conditions will be cold and maybe even snowy, they have the decided edge. Take the Presidents in a slight upset, 27-14.
Tomorrow’s Previews on the Minor League Sports Report will look at:
Wisconsin-Whitewater vs. Macalester
Wabash vs. Franklin
St. John’s vs. St. Scholastica
Warburg vs. St. Thomas
By Robert Pannier